New Year’s Eve on a Disney Cruise

March 15th, 2014

Picture

This year, we found a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve that was just the right speed for us, although it will be cost prohibitive to do it again any time too soon.  This year, we took the New Year’s week cruise on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship!

My family enjoys doing something for New Year’s Eve, but we aren’t particularly crazy about dealing with huge crowds and complicated logistics.  While we have spent many quiet New Year’s Eves at home, we have also occasionally tried something a bit more grand, including a party at some friends’ house for 1999/2000 and a couple visits to Legoland California in recent years.  My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve at Disneyland together one time, although it was actually a few weeks before we officially went on our first date.  New Year’s Eve at Disneyland was a fun experience, but not one that we have wanted to repeat.

The cruise was a New Year’s Eve experience that was full of excitement and fun, but with crowd sizes kept very manageable by the ship’s capacity and logistics that made for a relaxing and never-too-complicated day.  Sure, there were a lot of logistics (and cost) involved in planning out the cruise and getting there, but the vast majority of stress and complication melts away once on board the ship.

Picture During the daytime, New Year’s Eve was a port day on the island of St. Maartin.  We were able to sleep in a bit and have a leisurely breakfast at Cabana’s, the ship’s buffet restaurant.  We then spent the rest of the morning just relaxing and enjoying some of the ship’s amenities with a quick lunch at one of the fast food stands on deck.  In the early afternoon, we went on a pre-arranged shore excursion to Orient Bay Beach, one of the island’s largest and best known beaches.  Yes, we spent New Year’s Eve afternoon at the beach!

Read the rest of this entry »

A Quiet Christmas with Family

January 15th, 2014

 

IMG_0340 

For this year’s holiday season, we put together the longest and most elaborate vacation my family has ever taken. This trip includes a 7-night Caribbean Cruise, stays in 5 different hotels (not counting the cruise ship), plus visits to Disney World, Legoland, Kennedy Space Center, and Daytona Beach.  We have been planning and saving for this trip over 2 years and it is hard to believe that it has finally arrived (I wrote this about 1/3 of the way into the trip).

In the midst of all this excitement, we put together a very quiet, family-focused Christmas.  Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were set aside to spend at my parents’ house.  They retired to Florida a number of years ago and this is the first time that I have been able to spend Christmas Day with them since that move.  Even more importantly, it was the first time that they were able to spend Christmas with their grandson.  My sister, who lives in Florida as well, was also able to join us on Christmas Day.  I really am not entirely sure when was the last time before this that all four of us (my parents, sister, and me) were together on Christmas.  I’m pretty certain it was close to 20 years and might even have been more.

While this isn’t the first time my family has visited during the Christmas season,  in the past, we have either come earlier in December or closer to the new year.  While this allowed us to do some early or late Christmas celebrations, this is the first time since I’ve been married (much less a father) that I have been able to bring my family to actually spend Christmas Day itself with my parents.  I am quite sure that this made this visit a particularly special one for all of us.

We chose to keep the celebration itself pretty simple, which I think made for the perfect chance for the family to simply spend and enjoy the time together.  We arrived at my parents’ house around 8:30am on Christmas Day and opened presents.  There was quite a nice collection of gifts under the tree this year.  I’m not quite sure if my son or my sister’s two dogs got more presents, but I think it was probably pretty close.  We all found that pretty amusing.

When my parents asked for ideas for gifts for my son, Andrew, it occurred to me that he had really enjoyed the Despicable Me movies, particularly the minions, but didn’t have any toys or other merchandise from that.  My parents and sister took that to heart and got him plush toys, a personalized mug, and, the biggest hit of the day, a singing/talking toy minion.  He was amusing in his reaction to the vocal antics of the minion, which was basically "That’s really annoying… but I like it!" all in one breath.

Santa must have known that Andrew is a fan of game shows and that he was on a vacation that would include a couple visits to the beach.  His main gifts this year were a Wheel of Fortune board game (Disney themed), a Jeopardy calendar, and a nice set of beach toys.  He was pretty happy with all of those gifts and the Wheel of Fortune board game provided us with another family activity for the afternoon.

Other gifts received by various members of the family included sweatshirts or t-shirts for each of us from University of Central Florida, where my sister is currently in grad school, as well as the usual assortment of Disney items.  My wife found a particularly clever Disneyland t-shirt of Darth Vader riding the Astro-Orbitor (and holding a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar!), which she got for me.  I hadn’t seen that one before and got a big kick out of it.

While my family has usually gone out for fairly big Christmas dinners at some restaurant or another, my parents very wisely decided to do a nice dinner at home this year.  They cooked a delicious dinner of ham, baked potatoes, salad, green-bean casserole, and apple or pumpkin pie for dessert.  Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the menu choices were a great mix of good, festive food without requiring that my parents (or any of the rest of us) spend so much time in the kitchen as to lose out on good family social time during the day.

Overall, that really was the key theme of the day.  With activities that included play time with my sister’s dogs, playing the Wheel of Fortune board game, watching Finding Nemo (Andrew’s choice) and the Disney Parks Holiday Parade on TV, and quite a bit of time just simply sitting around talking, this was very much a day of family togetherness and was one of the nicest Christmas holidays that I remember.

Soundtrack Collection: Fantastic Voyage to Father of the Bride

January 22nd, 2012

Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage (Leonard Rosenman, 1966): Leonard Rosenman provides a moody and often dissonant, but also sometimes melodic and thematic, score for the popular science fiction adventure about a team of miniaturized scientists exploring he innards of the human body.  It is an unusual and experimental score, but also distinctive and effective.

The melodic aspects of the scores are primarily built around a haunting and evocative central theme.  The theme is fairly short, primarily characterized by a short fanfare-type motif, although its statement usually leads to fairly dissonant and, at times, atonal material.  The score finally goes fully-melodic, and becomes recognizably Rosenman’s style, during the dramatic finale cue, entitled “Optic Nerve/End Cast”.

The soundtrack CD opens very strangely, with a minute and a half “Main Title Sound Effects Suite”, which is exactly what the title suggests.  It includes a variety of beeps, buzzes, clicks, and electronic hums with no melody involved.  The early part of the film (up until the scientists first enter the body) was left unscored, so this sound effects suite is representative of the opening of the film.

Film Score Monthly released a CD of the score back in 1998, the first release separate from the film.  This is a complete presentation with a running time of a little over 45 minutes.  The CD is out-of-print and is now a bit expensive, but not difficult, to locate.

Far and Away

Far and Away (John Williams, 1992): While the film was not a big hit and the score isn’t extremely well-known to the mainstream public, John Williams’ music to Ron Howard’s 70mm epic Far and Away has become a favorite of film music enthusiasts and is frequently featured at Williams’ live concerts. The epic scope of the film provided Williams with an opportunity to showcase a wide range of highly-thematic material, including Irish/Celtic flavored melodies, western-tinged Americana, and rousing action cues.  The result is one Williams’ richest and most diverse scores.

The film’s focus on the relationship (and romance) between Irish immigrants played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman made the use of Irish-influenced melodies an obvious choice that Williams certainly embraced.  The first cue on the soundtrack, “County Galway, June 1892” establishes the main theme, which incorporates bagpipes along with the orchestra and is both distinctly ethnic and also an example of Williams’ strong gift for rich, thematic melody.  As the film transitions into American settings, the more ethnic elements of the theme are pushed more into the background in favor of a distinctively Americana orchestral flavor.

The strength of the main theme from Far and Away, which isn’t fully dependent on the Irish arrangements, led to a very effective violin arrangement of the theme that Williams arranged for the “Cinematic Serenade” album that he did with Yo Yo Ma, and which is now a frequent showcase for the lead violin player at some of Williams’ live concerts.

The ethnic components of the score are further strengthened through the participation of the popular Irish band The Chieftains on several of the scores cues.  On the soundtrack, these are the cues “The Fighting Donellys”, “Fighting for Dough” and portions of the end credits suite.  Their energetic strings and percussion are expertly blended with the orchestra. 

Williams provides some exuberant, orchestral action music in such cues as the rich, string-centered “Blowing Off Steam”, “Fighting for Dough”, and “The Big Match”.  Williams sticks with grand, very melodic material for the action segments of the score, eventually culminating in the absolutely thrilling 5 minute cue “The Land Race”, which is one of the score’s highlights. 

The score also features richly dramatic components, including the cue “Am I Beautiful”, which is highlighted by an especially effective piano rendition of the score’s central theme.  Another distinctive, quietly dramatic cue is “Inside the Mansion”, where Williams mixes tender strings with bell-like piano to create an almost dreamlike quality to the music, eventually leading into another tender piano rendition of the theme.  This cue then transitions into the more darkly-dramatic “Shannon is Shot”.

In addition to Williams’ music, the soundtrack album also contains the song “Book of Days”, written for the film and performed by Enya.  I admit that I tend to find that Enya’s songs all sound fairly interchangeable to me, although I generally find them pleasant enough.  I do like this song and it blends in fairly well with the score.  The song’s presentation on the album is between the film’s finale music and Williams’ end credits suite, but it doesn’t really feel out of place.

The soundtrack album to Far and Away isn’t a complete presentation of the score and isn’t entirely chronological, but it perhaps one of the best arguments out there in favor of an album arrangement over a complete and chronological release.  The listening experience on the album (which runs just under an hour and ten minutes) is simply superb, with expertly edited cues and transitions. While I would likely purchase an expanded release, I am also pretty sure that I would both retain and still frequently play the original album.

Read the rest of this entry »

Soundtrack Collection: F/X to Fantastic 4

November 12th, 2011

F/X

F/X (Bill Conti, 1986): I remember really liking this mid-80s thriller about a special effects artist that gets caught up in real life intrigue, but I also admit that I don’t really remember very much about it.  While Varese Sarabande released a soundtrack LP at the time of the film’s release, I never bought it and the score didn’t particularly stick with me after seeing the film.  As a result, I ended up essentially re-discovering this score with the 2007 Varese Sarabande CD Club release.

Bill Conti provides a moody, vaguely noir-inspired mixed orchestral and electronic score with several melodic main themes as well as fair amount of suspenseful, string-dominated music.  The "Main Title" cue actually opens with a bit of suspense-driven piano and string music before shifting into a brassy, percussive fanfare.  About a minute and a half in, it then transitions into the score’s main theme, which features a string melody overlaid with a repetitive piano motif.

The more melodic aspect of the score first comes into play in the cue "Rollie’s Diversion", which is primarily a piano-driven version of the main theme, although with some strings joining in towards the latter half of the cue.  The theme continues to provide a melodic line throughout the score, although the darker, more-suspenseful music tends to dominate the soundtrack.  Conti does occasionally provide some of the brassy, fanfare type music that is often his trademark.  In addition to the brief fanfare during the main title, the cue "No Loose Ends" also is a very brassy, action-oriented cue and is very recognizably Conti.  Horns are used more sparingly here than in most of Conti’s scores, but that just tends to make them a bit more impacting when they do appear.

The score is primarily orchestral, but Conti does make sparing use of electronics, such as in the cue "The Wrong Hit".  The electronic elements are typically used to ratchet up the suspense a bit.  Another change of pace comes with an extended militaristic drum solo during the late cue "Lipton’s Last Ride".

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (Bernard Herrmann, 1966): The CD that I have of this classic Bernard Herrmann score is not actually the original soundtrack recording.  Instead, it is an excellent re-recording of the score by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Stromberg.  This re-recording was released by Tribute Film Classics in late 2007 and also includes music from Herrman’s score to the "Twilight Zone" TV episode entitled "Walking Distance".  The music from Fahrenheit 451 runs a little over an hour in length and is billed as being complete.

Herrmann’s score uses an interesting mix of fairly light-touch, vaguely fantasy-inspired melodies along with some darker, fairly oppressive music.  The lighter portions are dominated by piano as well as frequent use of xylophone and harp.  The darker material features aggressive, lower-register strings as well as some slower, vaguely-sad melodies.  The two styles of music are often presented side-by-side, reflecting Ray Bradbury’s story’s depiction of a society that is characterized by a surface happiness masking an underlying oppression.

There are some faster paced, action-oriented cues as well.  Herrmann makes especially effective use of very fast paced violins in these segments of the score.  Really good examples of this aspect of the score can be found in the cues "Fire Alarm" and "The Hose".  Occasional bits of xylophone and harp overlaying the strings add an especially appealing bit of color to these cues.  Herrmann also includes some emotional, melodic material, particularly in the later part of the score.  "The Reading" is a particularly emotional cue.

The score is presented as 47, generally very short cues.  The longest cues run a little over 3 minutes while many are well below a minute in length.  Despite this, the score does not seem choppy or disjointed.  The music is arranged so that the cues typically flow cleanly into one another, making for a very effective listening experience.  The large number of cues mainly makes it very easy to connect each bit of music directly to the appropriate part of the film.

Read the rest of this entry »

Disney Dream, August 2011: Nassau (Part 1: Introduction, Breakfast, DVC Reception, Mini-golf)

September 25th, 2011

Nassau
View of Nassau from our stateroom

On the first full day of the cruise, the ship was docked at Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital city.  Our only previous visit to Nassau was during our previous cruise on the Disney Wonder.  On that cruise, we took a shore excursion over to the Atlantis Resort, a popular luxury hotel and casino, which also features an aquarium.  It was fun, but a very touristy spot with little-to-no local color.

This time, we wanted to see a bit more of the city and perhaps get a little more of a taste of the local culture.  When reviewing the offered shore excursions, it was quickly obvious to me that a good choice for us was the one that featured a visit to Ardastra Gardens, which is a local zoo, followed by a bus tour of the city.  This was particularly appealing as the featured attraction at Ardastra Gardens is the "world-famous marching pink flamingos".  Pink flamingos are my wife’s favorite animal, so this sounded like something she would particularly appreciate.

The excursion left the ship at 12:30pm and lasted for about 2 hours, which left us with plenty of time on-board the ship in the morning and the late afternoon and evening.  We wanted to have plenty of time to explore the ship and enjoy its features, so this was about the right length for the excursion.

Breakfast at Cabanas

Cabanas
Cabanas food stations

For breakfast, we decided to try out Cabanas, the buffet restaurant on deck 11.  Cabanas is pretty different from the equivalent restaurants on the Magic and Wonder.  It has a much larger indoor seating area and has also been changed from a traditional cafeteria-style buffet into more of a food court format with stations for different kinds of food.  Another interesting change is that Cabanas is a table-service location during the dinner hour, offering a more casual alternative to the main dining rooms while still serving the same 4-course meals.

At the entrance to the restaurant, greeters were stationed to guide guests to a table and give a brief overview of the available food.  I definitely prefer this approach over being left to find a table on our own. We were taken to a table next to a window and had a really great view during our meal. 

The breakfast offerings were pretty typical for a buffet.  They had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, Mickey-shaped waffles, pancakes, and a variety of fruit, cereal, and pastries.  Drink stations on either end of the restaurant offered juices, coffee, and soda.  I only like eggs that are very well-done and the eggs they had were way too runny for my taste.  Because of this, I mainly stuck with waffles and fruit. I don’t know if they would have prepared some better-cooked eggs for me if I had asked, but they didn’t have a cooked-to-order egg station.

Seagulls at Cabanas
The seagulls from Finding Nemo were perched on a ledge near our table.

The food was pretty decent for this type of buffet and the decor of the restaurant, which is largely inspired by Finding Nemo, is pretty nice.  We actually ended up having our breakfast at Cabanas three of our four mornings on-board the ship.

Read the rest of this entry »