Upgrading your car: replacing that old CD Player with a new touchscreen system with Bluetooth and more

AltimaHybridI have a 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. It is nothing fancy, and isn’t in the best shape. Oh, the body is in good shape, it needs a little TLC, like paint and other cosmetic fixes.  Creature comfort wise, though, it came with a workable CD/Radio, cruise, power seats and…that’s about it.  Well, I also have a 2007 Infiniti with a lot of bells and whistles.  So, I wanted some of that in my Nissan.  I set about to see what I could do.  I found out that there are A LOT of possibilities.  And, they don’t cost an arm and a leg.  So, I swam through a sea of similar head end units and found one for under $40 (US).  The unit has MP3 audio, SD and USB ports, plays a plethora of video formats, FM Radio, backup camera support, 7 inch, HD touch screen, Bluetooth and supports video in and out.  Wow. For forty bucks.  Well, in order to install this, you need an installation kit. So…I got one of them AND the correct wiring harness for the 2007 Altima with digital enviro controls.  The installation kit was twenty five dollars (US) and fits the car perfectly. 

The items arrived, days apart, of course.  I tested the headend and it appeared to be fully functional so I preassembled the installation kit and mounted the head in the kit.  I then soldered the harnesses so they would be ready.  20181023_201024

Installation was relatively easy…except, the head was about 5 mm too wide and, maybe one mm too high for the kit.  I was able to make it work by trimming the bezel and, since the kit is plastic, was able to slightly bend one bracket just enough to where the mounting holes lined up. The bezel that goes on the front had to be trimmed a bit for the knob.

received_328936107898619Installing the whole thing in the car was even easier.  Pop off the vent cover, pull off the bottom cover (just under the enviro controls and remove the two screws at the top and two at the bottom and pull the unit out.  You then have to remove the environ controls. There is one Torx screw on each side. Take them out, then bend the tabs up that hold it in the cage and pull it out. It snaps into the new cage. Screw the Torx screws back in and then connect all of the harnesses and the antenna.  Put the whole unit back in, screw in the four screws and then put the vent cover back.  Start the car and setup the unit.  Simple. It took me about thirty minutes.

Setup

Setup is fairly easy: tap the setup icon, set the language, FM Frequency, Video standard (NTSC or PAL) and set received_529731680832352the Boot logo if you want (enter 1983 on the keypad and look for your car manufacturer.) You can set the time by tapping on the clock and setting the date and time.  Its a bit cumbersome, but easy to do.

Pairing your phone is simple.  On your phone, look for GTB-KIT or something like CARKIT. You can import your phone book and phone log once paired.  It is the easiest pairing in a Bluetooth device I have seen.

The FM radio has three ‘banks’ of presets. You can let the device do it for you by pressing the PS button on the FM screen. You can then add or delete all you want.  NOTE: there is no AM radio on most of these cheap devices. Mine is the MP5-7023B and looks to be a clone of nearly all of the cheap head ends out there. The user interface, while looking OK, is not that easy to understand. Discoverability is not, apparently, a concern for the developers.

20181023_202611The MP3 player, photo viewer and movie player all require a USB stick or SD card, even though that is labelled ‘TF Card’. You need to create three folders: Music, Video and Photos.  Photos ONLY works with JPG files.  PNG and BMP(!) do not appear to work.  Video works with pretty much every codec and container out there. Music plays MP3, OGG, WAV and a few others.  Oh yeah, FLV video is supported.

I didn’t want the default non-Logo to display when the unit starts, I wanted the Nissan logo. Fortunately, in setup, there is a logo feature that allows you to pick one of couple of dozen or so manufacturer logos. Many are European or Asian and unfamiliar to me.  The Nissan logo was there, so I picked it.  To get to the page, go into setup, tap the Logo button and enter 1983. The page will display. Simply select the logo you want by tapping it.  Hit the Home button to save. Boom, done.

What I don’t like

The user interface is really wonky.  It is pleasant enough, with a kind of Windows 8 look for the home screen.  Lots of blue is used.  This is all fine, but, it is REALLY sluggish.  The touch screen is not very sensitive either.  In bright light, it washed out, big time.  The knob serves many purposes, but is mainly confusing. Not only can you turn it, like a real knob, but you can also push it in. It is context aware, but inconsistent.

The equalizer function works for all music playback, but is only available on screen if you are in the FM Radio app. 20181023_211917 Otherwise, you must press the knob, several times, to get to the very small icon for the EQ, then you turn the knob for one of four or so presets.  You cannot create your own sound, though.

The remote woks great, but, the buttons are difficult to press and you must be in line of sight with the IR receiver. And, why the remote? I would rather have had a steering wheel control.  However, the remote does make navigating the touch screen much easier.

Bluetooth works fine, but the music playback from your phone is not complete. All you get is Previous, Next, 20181023_201049Pause and Play. You get no info about what is playing or the album art. 

What I like

For the price, everything. This thing was forty bucks.  Yes, it is far from perfect and, likely, won’t last.  I am OK with that, as long as I can get six months or more.  I plan to get a nicer one with DVD and GPS, but, this will work in the interim.  Speaking of GPS, I am working on a DIY GPS that will utilize a Raspberry Pi and GPS module I got from Radio Shack, years ago, for my Arduino stuff. The MP5 has an external video input that I will use for the GPS.  I also have a backup camera I am going to install in the car. The unit supports this as well.

If you have an older vehicle that could use an upgrade like this, you can certainly do it on the cheap.  The thing to keep in mind, though, is the installation kit. More common cars, like the Altima, will probably have the kits readily available. Otherwise, you might have to get creative.   All in all, it is a worthy upgrade and didn’t break the bank or take hours to do.

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Non-Tech Fun: Vacationing in the Mid-Atlantic Area

It’s that time of year when vacations are starting and you are looking for great places to take your family and relax and have some fun.  And, what better places to take them than to the amusement parks, right?  Well, sure, but there are new types of amusement parks that do not involve rollercoasters or ferris wheels.  First, though, I am going to talk about rollercoasters.  BIG ONES, at that.

Overview of Carowinds entranceThe tallest giga-coaster on the East Coast, and one of the tallest in the country, is called Fury 325 and is located in the very nice Carowinds theme park located near Charlotte, North Carolina.  This thing is 325 feet tall, has an 85 degree first drop and is over 6600 feet long. It towers over the park.  Now, Carowinds isn’t a one trick wonder. No, it also has another tall coaster: the Intimidator. Named after the late, great Dale Earnhardt, this out and back coaster features a first drop of over 200 feet and, prior to Fury 325, was the south easts tallest and fastest roller coaster.  Rounding out Carowinds collect are Nighthawk, a coaster where you lay down and Flightdeck, a hanging rollercoaster that is very fast and features many inversions.  Carowinds is a delightful place to take your family and won’t break the bank.Overview of Carowinds entrance

Charlotte is also home to an NFL team and, of course, NASCAR.  The NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in downtown Charlotte, just minutes from the theme park.

Travelling north, to Virginia, you will find not one, but two world class theme parks, lots of museums, and history, a ton of history from the revolutionary war era, to the Civil War and both World Wars. 

Griffon, at Busch Gardens WilliamsburgStarting in Williamsburg, you have Busch Gardens, a true world class park.  It’s theming, food, service and, of course, its rides, all make it THE best theme park to visit, period.  For its rides, you have Alpengeist, a daring hanging coaster that was the tallest of its type for many years.  The Loch Ness Monster, which, when it opened, was the tallest and fastest coaster in the country. Then, there is the Griffon. Griffon takes you up 205 feet, dangles you over the edge and then lets you drop down an almost 90 degree drop.  It’s a real heart stopper.  Apollo’s Chariot is hypercoaster that will never cease to thrill.  Busch Gardens has terrific food as well.  Oktoberfest lets you sample German cuisine while Festa Italia gives you a taste of Italy.  Down the road from the park you will find Water Country, USA, a huge water park.

Also in Williamsburg, you will find Colonial Williamsburg for a sampling of life in the 1700’s.  There’s also shopping, fine dining and more touristy things to do like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium. Finally, there’s mini-golf, go kart parks and the famous Williamsburg Pottery Outlets.

Oh, yeah, I’d me remiss if I neglected to mention Great Wolf Lodge.  This nice resort features a good sized indoor waterpark, included in the price of your room. 

And, don’t forget, to the east is Virginia Beach, about a forty minute drive. And Norfolk, which contains even more things to do, including an aquarium and battleship.  Virginia Beach also features an even better aquarium that also has zip lines and a rope course.

Loch Ness Monster, BGWJust north and west of Williamsburg is Richmond.  Richmond is rich in history, culture, fine arts and food. Lots of restaurants with everything from soul food, to country food to anything European, Korean, Japanese or Chinese.  There’s also a tremendous amount of Thai food restaurants.  You name, you can likely find it in Richmond.  In addition to shopping and food, you’ll find many art museums, history museums and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.

There’s minor league Baseball, NASCAR twice a year (in April and September) and several short tracks for that weekly dose of speed.  There’s adrenaline junky places like Jumpology, a trampoline fun house.  Coming soon to the area is an indoor park featuring an American Gladiators type course, several zip lines and rope courses. 

A few minutes north of Richmond takes you to Virginia’s second world class theme park, Kings Dominion.  Kings Dominion is a sister park to Carowinds and, as such, contains many of the same types of rides and attractions.  It includes a nice collection of Dominator Rollercoaster, KDrollercoasters, including what was the tallest and fastest giga coaster on the east: Intimidator 305.  This 305 foot tall beast, also named for Dale Earnhardt, gives you the feeling of the high banked turns of Talledega and Daytona.  The first drop takes you into a sharp right turn that may cause a momentary ‘grey out’ in which you lose vision for a fraction of a second. This is normal and is not harmful, just weird. It is caused by blood flow and is harmless. 

Edgar Allen Poe MuseumThe park also features many ‘launch’ style coasters, where, instead of the train being pulled up a hill and released, linear induction motors propel the train forward at tremendous speed.  One of them, the Volcano, shoots you out of the station, around the base of a volcano mountain and then up and through the Volcano itself.  Quite thrilling and was my favorite coaster until I rode Fury 325.

Kings Dominion also features a nice but small collection of wooden rollercoasters, including the Rebel Yell, which is featured in the motion picture ‘Rollercoaster’. 

In addition to nice collection of rollercoasters, the park also features shows and a good collection of flat rides including a Ferris Wheel, a Carousel from the 1920’s and a smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower (this one is one third size at 300 feet.)  For thrills, there is the 300 foot tall Drop Zone tower and the 305 foot tall Windseeker, a swing that takes you up nearly 300 feet.

Richmond, VA - richmondcitybook.comRichmond is nicely located with Washington DC to the north, the beautiful Skyline Drive to the north and west and, of course Williamsburg and Virginia Beach to the east.  All of these destinations are within a two hour drive.  The Outer Banks of North Carolina are just three hours from Richmond.  But, there’s certainly plenty to do in the city and one could spend a week here doing it all.

The East Coast from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina all the way up to Ocean City, Maryland (two of my favorite vacation spots as well) offer up a tremendous opportunity for a fun filled vacation pretty much any time of the year (the amusement parks are seasonal, however) and none of it will break the bank either.

Buying a new vehicle? Wipe the old one’s memory first!

When you toss out your old computer, you likely will remove its hard drives or storage and either keep them or destroy them. Likewise, when you give an old computer, digital camera or other digital device away, you wipe out (I hope you do, anyway) your personal information, photos, music files, etc.  In other words, you clean them up and ready them for the next person to make use of them.

I’ll bet, however, that there are two devices that most will forget about: your smartphone and your vehicle.

Many mid and high end cars and trucks made since, say, 2004, will come with some kind of infotainment system. Many of them allow you to store personal photos, music and even movies.  IF the vehicle has GPS, it records the last x number destinations, likely has your home address stored in its ‘go home’ feature and may even ‘remember’ exact routes you take often. 

In addition, if your vehicle has phone capability, then it has phone numbers and names of people you’ve called. Has information about your phone as well.

So, when you sell or trade your vehicle, do you remember to erase the various memories in the system?

Well, I can attest that many do not. I’m going to even say that MOST do not do this.  In fact, I neglected it myself. Only remembering hours after the dealer was closed.

The vehicle  we purchase has a sophisticated infotainment system. GPS, bluetooth and phone connectivity.  Sure enough, names, phone numbers and addresses were there. The phone module had a dozen or so ‘last calls’ and phone numbers with names.  The GPS had routes and a home location. It was all there. 

The vehicle I traded, a 2010 VW mini van, also had a photo album and music library.  I put a dozen photos on it and three CD’s of assorted music.  The GPS also has my information.  It never occurred to me to delete any of this until hours later.  I am hoping the dealer will let me erase this information before they sell the vehicle. 

I have wiped out the memory in my new to me car, but a person with nefarious goals, could have used it to cause problems for the former owner of my new new to me car.

Just a word of caution to you all, when trading or selling your vehicle, make sure you purge it of both digital and real world information.

UPDATE: Went to the dealer, they still had the van. Asked if I could erase the data and they said no problem. I was escorted to where the van sat and was allowed to remove our data. Took about five minutes to delete it all.  The Volkswagen software is bad, terrible interface but…it worked just fine.

Rollercoaster Odyssey

WP_20140417_089It’s that time of year again when the amusement and theme parks gear up for a summer of fun and BIG, BIG rides along with the flow of greenbacks. Yes, it’s rollercoaster time again. For some, it’s a year ‘round thing, for most of use, however, it is from late March until about the end of October.  It’s no different for Half-Byte. This year, Half-Byte took a rollercoaster filled vacation, an odyssey, if you will.

Now, before I go on, I have to admit that it was more of Half-Byte’s family who did the coastering and not Half-Byte.

WP_20140417_064We spent a week in what could be the Coaster capital of the world-certainly, North America. Yep, we went to Orlando, Florida.  Let me tell you, that is NOT a place that Half-Byte wishes to relocate to, if the opportunity arises. Crowded, construction everywhere and LONG LINES for even entry into local restaurants.

I’ve been there several times in the past, but my oldest doesn’t remember them and my newest family members have never been (save my wife, she went when she much younger.)  My son’s girlfriend came along as well.  So, this was quite an adventure. I’ll spare the gory details about the trip down and back-we drove, ‘nuff said.

WP_20140415_100The main attraction is, of course, The Magic Kingdom, Disney World. The problem with Disney World, and coasters, is that there are only three (with a fourth to open shortly.) BUT…they are pretty killer coasters.  First, there’s the Barnstormer, a ‘kiddie’ coaster that manages to pack some light thrills even for adults. Then there’s the Big Thunder Railroad. Boy, that’s a terrific ride. Fast, lots of turns and great theming all around. I rode it first, years ago, with my son and, this time, with my step son. Brought back wonderful memories and I’m really glad that he LOVES rollercoasters. Lastly, there’s the big one: SPACE MOUNTAIN. I stayed off it this time, my wife rode with my step son and they had a blast. I sat it out with the Xanman, my infant son.  WP_20140417_028Can’t wait to do this with him.

Disney done, we headed to Sea World. They have three rollercoasters, but none of us did the ‘kiddie’ coaster this time. I rode Kraken with my son and his girlfriend. That was quite a thrill, fast and furious…but, it felt dirty.  In fact, I was a bit shocked by how dirty the whole theme park ‘felt.’ Oh, there wasn’t any trash strewn about and you can tell the park makes an effort to keep the place clean, but…it felt dirty, rundown. Like Six Flags America in Maryland.  My wife, son and his girlfriend rode 076Manta, a ‘lay down’ coaster. They loved it.  I sat it out with my son and step son.

Next up was Epcot, which I loved for the atmosphere but, it’s more of a shopping experience and has little for the kids.  Not much on the thrill rides either. Mission Space was off limits to us as we all have conditions that would preclude us riding it.  Test Track, however, my son and his girlfriend rode and appeared to like.

Lastly, we hit up Busch Gardens in Tampa.  Now, this is a theme park I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Well, since I started going to the one here, in Virginia. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a sprawling, wooded, and just gorgeous place to visit. It has great rides and wonderful food.  The staff is top notch-on par or better than Disney.  So, I expected the Tampa park to be the same or better.  So, imagine my surprise when we pull into its parking lot…boy, were we shocked. The park is land locked in what appears to be University area.  The parking lot we were shunted into is dilapidated and did not give us a good first impression. Upon entering the park, however, we realized it was not quite as bad as the parking lot. BG Tampa is themed to the African wild. The theming is well done, but, like Sea World in Orlando, it felt a bit run d152own.  The staff, while nice, wasn’t as good as the staff here in Virginia.  We got mixed signals about the use of our BGW season pass, what it could and could not do.  However, once we got into the park proper and began riding the rides, we knew it was good park.  The Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster, one in which all of us but the Xanman rode, was top notch. This thing has four linear launches, quite a kick In the butt.  Several inversions and lots twists and turns later, it was over. It was the only coaster that my step son rode multiple times and wanted more. He would have ridden it all day if he could.  The other coasters in the park were met with various thumbs up from the family, with Sheik-Ra being a favorite of my oldest son (it is very similar to his favorite coaster, the Griffon.)

WP_20140417_073Rides aside, the other astounding thing about this odyssey was the cost of food: it was outrageous. The most expensive ‘lunch’ I think I’ve ever had was at Sea World: $75. We can have dinner at Outback and save money, compared to lunch at Sea World.  Oddly, Disney’s food was more moderately priced. A similar lunch at Epcot was about $25 cheaper.  Busch Gardens Tampa was similar to the park here in Virginia.  The food was good and cost about what Disney did. Interesting since Busch Gardens and Sea World are the same company.  But, it was vacation and we had budgeted for eating at the parks.  Still, it was a bit of sticker shock.  Makes me appreciate our two parks here in Virginia.

So, we did four major parks in a week (and a local attraction called Wonder Works) WP_20140412_009and it was both too much and not enough.  Ticket prices are very expensive with Disney costing the most.  If you want a multi-day, multi-park ticket, be prepared to shell out a HUGE chunk of change. We only did a two day pass and it was outrageous.  We skipped Universal for this reason: it is nearly as high.  We got lucky with Sea World and Busch Gardens: fifty bucks per person per park. Much cheaper than anyone else.  Of course, if you JUST want Disney or Universal, then the multi-day tickets are a bargain: you can come and go as many times as you want. Add park hopper and you can visit all Disney parks in a day. Don’t do that, you will miss a lot. Looking back, we should have hit up Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios instead of Epcot. Maybe next time.

Of all the parks we went to, Busch Gardens had the best thrills.  Disney was, well Disney.  Those two make a great pair and book ended our odyssey. Great way to start and a great way to end.  It was fun.

I am glad to be back home.

At King’s Dominion, out with the old and in with the new is OK, Planet Snoopy’s expansion is worth the price of admission

IMG_1500It is that time of the year, again, when theme parks across the nation are re-opening for a new season. And, as in every prior year I’ve had children, we went early to beat the crowds. My ‘local’ parks are Cedar Fair’s King’s Dominion and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This first visit was to King’s Dominion and mainly for our soon to be five year old son. Now, my step son, like my 15 year old son, is a dare devil and just loves excitement.  This year, the park expanded its ‘Planet Snoopy’, getting rid of many of the older rides-much of them were here when the park opened in 1974-75. Heck, I rode some of them myself. These are kiddie rides. A very large number of children have ridden them over the last thirty plus years.  Many memories centered around those ride. Well, most of them are gone.

For me, it was a bittersweet thing. For I remember taking my 15 year old when he was three. IMG_1501 He rode those rides until he was too big for them.  The pirate ship, just in front of what used to be called the Scooby Doo Ghoster Coaster, is gone.  Not seeing it was a bit on the sad side. My son LOVED that little ship. He was so cute riding it…he’d be the only child so into the ride (and not crying) that he’d throw his arms up. You could not wipe the grin from his face.  Now, it is gone. Replaced by another ship ride…this one a disco type.  A disco ride is a very short train track, curve up on both ends. The ‘train’, this one shaped like a tug boat, goes back and forth, gaining a little speed each time. Then, the damned thing rotates! It does this for a couple of minutes. The big difference, though, between this new ride and the one it replaces…adults can ride too. In fact, most of the new rides in the kid zone (Planet Snoopy) are family friendly.

Kid's water works is goneThe new, expanded area provides a nice amenity for mothers (and Dad’s too) with infants. They have a refurbished building, near the restrooms, that has been remodeled and contains a play area, a lounge area with a microwave and bottle warmers and several rooms for Mom to breast feed baby. Very nice and many, many kudos to the park for not doing something like turning it into a restaurant or tacky store.

Speaking of food…there is an outdoor market that not only sells drinks, but fruits and veggie snacks as well. It is nice to see this sort of thing in a facility that also sells tons of candy and other sugary snacks.

Walking around Planet Snoopy, you can see that Cedar Fair wants this place to succeed. They put a ton of money into cleaning it up, re-theming the area and putting in quality rides. While the old rides evoke a certain nostalgia and sentiment, the new rides are quality rides and are very well done. 

IMG_1506Even so, I am a little saddened by the removal of some key rides and attractions, even one that languished over the last decade.  The Treasure Cave, aka Yogi’s Cave, at one time, was a cool, well themed walk through attraction. Over the years, much of the theming was removed and, last year, it was pretty much empty. Yet, all of my kids and extended family LOVED walking through it. So did I. Perhaps it is fitting that it was removed. My fond memories of the caves, those where you’d wait thirty minutes, an hour or longer just to walk through it. It took just a few minutes to walk through and angled floor at the end of the walk always surprised you. You KNEW it was there. You KNEW what to expect. Yet, somehow, you were surprised when you got to it.  I like that thought. I love the memory of my then four year old, in utter awe of that ending. Blew his mind.  And, yet, when he was 14, he STILL loved it. He and his older cousin…running to the cave, like they were five again.  Makes me smile just writing about it.

IMG_1513While the cave is gone, as well as the pirate ship, the jeep roundabout and others, the new rides will, no doubt, create new fond memories for Moms, Dads and kids a like. And, I have to say,in this case, casting aside the old for the new is perfectly OK.  I hope those old rides find new homes, but, if they don’t, that’s OK. They did a fine job.  A fine one indeed. 

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Busch Gardens disappoints with Howl-O-Scream

Halloween. A time when people WANT to be scared. In the United States, it is traditional to start seeking out venues to PAY to be scared, usually starting toward the end of September.  Amusement parks around the country gear up for this time of year by replacing normal attractions with those of a more macabre tone. My two local parks, Cedar Fair’s Kings Dominion and Sea World’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg are two parks that generally go all out for October.

Clown HordeBusch Gardens Williamsburg (here out to be called BGW) slants toward a more family friendly environment while Kings Dominion warns parents not bring small ones after 6pm and, in fact, shuts down it’s kiddie area (Planet Snoopy.)

At a ‘passholder appreciation’ event recently, the GM for BGW promised that this years Howl-O-Scream would be the best yet. Scarier, a new maze, scare hordes instead of scare zones would cover the entire park and leave no stone unturned. A new show in the Oktoberfest area would replace last years bawdy and very adult themed ‘Fiends’ show, which was being moved to a smaller venue (Abbey Stone Theater) and better signage warning parents about the nature of that show. This years event sounded great. In addition, the whole thing started earlier than last years Howl-O-Scream and the first night allowed pass-holders to bring a friend for free.  Wonderful.

Problem is that they failed miserably.

BGW is my favorite park, I need to say that right away. I love them. They are consistently a great place to take your family. Good food, great atmosphere, spectacular rollercoasters (but not enough of them) and the place is just gorgeous. They do a terrific job during the season.

Halloween events, however, are the weak spot and this year, oh my.  I don’t know if they just don’t have enough people or if it was just first night jitters, but it seemed amateurish and more like a dress rehearsal than the real thing.

Many of the mazes, where you go to get scared, were light on fright, weakly themed and poorly covered by ‘scarachters’, the cast members who dress up to scare. In fact one maze, Fear Fair, which is supposed to look like a county fair, had just four such scarachters. IMAG1183

The newest maze, made up of thousands of plants and trees, was supposed to be the scariest. We waited just over an hour to get into the maze.  My wife was startled twice, but only because she was diverted by another guest. Too many people were let through at once, which spoils the scare for most in the group, especially if you are near the end of the group.  In one case, in the Thirteen maze, the whole thing just stopped. Standing in one of these things, for five or more minutes, with nothing happening, really ruins the experience. Add in non-functioning effects and you just get bored.

For a major theme park to have this many problems during a highly publicized event is not good. Yes, I realize that nothing is perfect, but when you drive hours to such a place and pay good, hard earned money, you do expect something close to smooth and somewhat what was advertised, not what was delivered during the opening night. The park is a fifty minute drive for us and we have season passes, so we will go back and try it again, but what about the family who drove two, three or four hours to there, spent $64.95 a person to get in, plus whatever the food costs are…I’d be pretty mad and would want a refund.

Perhaps the worse part about it are the hours.  Most of the mazes open at 6pm, but the whole park closes at 10pm. That gives you just four hours to do it all.  We spent over an hour waiting in line for ONE maze.  Imagine if you had to endure that, plus thirty to forty minutes for two or three others. That gives you little time to do anything else. When asked about changing the hours, the GM shrugged his shoulders and said something about the family nature of the park and that no time change was planned.

While this park has never had a spectacular Halloween event, at least when compared to, say, Kings Dominion, they have done much better in the past-like last year’s event. It is very disappointing that they failed to pull this off in such spectacular fashion.

I will write a follow up to this after we go back, so, stay tuned!

Ocean city, we came, we conquered, we left

100_2572Vacations.  We love them. They are a time to spend with your family and/or friends. They are a break from our normal lives. A time to rest and relax. Only…we don’t rest and, if you have kids, you do little relaxing.

We tend to travel, sometimes by plane or train, but, for many families, we drive to our destinations-destinations that are usually a day or two away.

I just got back from vacationing, with my family, in Ocean City, Maryland. Now, if you’ve never heard of this quaint little beach city, I would not be surprised. It is nestled on the east side of Maryland, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer, the temps are very warm, typical for the area. The city is small, very clean and the people are very friendly. If you know what Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is like, take the very best of that and that’s what ALL of Ocean City is like.100_2615

We stayed at a family resort called Francis Scott Key Family Resort. It is a multi building facility, with its own mini-golf course, an outdoor and indoor pool (which is part of the ‘water park’), basketball court, volleyball court, picnic pavilion, fishing pond and an outdoor ‘water park’ for kids. The rooms range from small to smaller, and there are bungalows with two bedrooms for rent. There is a family area, movie room and a 50’s style diner. It is an inexpensive resort and was pleasant, but nothing fancy. It is like an Econolodge version of the Great Wolf resort. The resort was about two miles from the beach, and fairly convenient to most of what Ocean City has to offer.

Our stay was for five days, which might have been one day too long or two days too short, depending on how you look at it. It was a bit long because eating out in this city is damned expensive.  While our room had a stove, microwave and fridge, we only actually used it for two meals.  And that was only when we realized how much of our vacation budget had been spent on food.  And, it was not all good food either, or a good experience worth the price that was charged.

IMAG1126Take, for instance, that 50’s style diner at the resort.  The first visit was almost two hours long. See, we decided to take our vacation the last of summer break for our kids. The time just happens to coincide with other localities ALREADY having started the new school year and many colleges ramping up a new year as well. As a result, much of the staff of the diner had already left for school, so the resort was using its staff. Unfortunately for us, they did not seem to know what to do. We were seated on the far side of the diner, which seemed to be ignored by the wait staff.  When we finally did get our order, it was, naturally, not all correct. I ended up with two cups of coffee, which I really did not mind, but the same guy asked, twice, if I wanted coffee, after I ordered it. Once the order was straight, we were told that we would get a 20% discount on our meal. The food was great, and we did, in fact, get our discount. A return visit was much more pleasant, they hired a few temps to help out and it was a nice visit. Other restaurants had great service and mediocre to OK food. Oddly, one of the better meals we had was a chain restaurant (we try to avoid them as we can get them at home.)

My 15 year old son, an amusement park junkie, wanted to visit the local attractions.IMAG1083 So, I took him and his cousin to a place called Trimper’s Amusements. Now, we’ve been there before and on each prior visit, we were able to purchase ‘all ride wrist bands.’ That’s a paper bracelet that allows you to partake in the parks’ attractions. It sells for about $22.  But…we got there after 7PM, when they STOP selling the bloody things. It seems the park is busiest after 7, so they sell sheets of tickets. A sheet of 40 tickets is $19.95.  Each ride takes 5 to 8 tickets. Of course, most of the rides the boys wanted to ride took 8 tickets. So, now they have to actually plan out what rides they wanted. Through judicious selection, they rode/did 6 things.  The only saving grace was that the place is on the boardwalk, which is just spectacular at night.  While the boys had a good time, it is a shame that the park priced them out of a better time.

A better time was had at the Jolly Roger Amusements.  Jolly Roger DOES have an evening all ride pass, but it is two dollars more than the day time pass. I’m guessing the parks do this since most people are actually on the beach and not at amusement parks.  At any rate, our four year old was able to enjoy Jolly Roger as well and it made for the best night of our vacation.

Along with the mini-golf, amusement parks, eating and beach going come the inevitable family squabbles.  No one wanting to decide what to eat seemed to be the biggest issue, dealing with an overly stimulated child and another who seemed comatose at times and one who is becoming a teen all added up normal family tension. It was all easily subdued by either leaving the room or, yes, eating.  Food seems to be the quiet arbiter of all family problems.  Fortunately, those little moments were not long lasting and did not spoil our stay.

100_2648Then, there is the drive. The long dreaded drive home. While the mapquest directions say four hours and 45 minutes or so, it really took over six. My wife is pregnant, the four year old has a pea sized bladder, I’m not as young as I used to be and the two older boys need for food plus traffic in Virginia’s port city of Norfolk all added up to frequent stops and a 45 minute traffic delay. Plus, the trip over and through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was not fun for me as I seriously dislike tunnels and long bridges. And, boy, is that a long bridge. Let me tell you, I was gripping that damn steering wheel so hard, my joints really ached by the time we got off the damned thing.

So, it was really great to get home. Unpacking was easy, all of our clothes went into the washing machine and since we did not shop, we didn’t have much to unpack. I downloaded all of the video and photos to the computer and started working on that great vacation video. It’s still ‘in process’, by the way. Didn’t do much with the photos as I had already started uploading them during vacation, to Facebook. Oh yeah, the WiFi at Francis Scott Key was terrible. While we could connect, we could not actually do anything. I took my Sprint WiFi hotspot piece of junk and we were able to use that. One weeks worth of data usage came to about 985 megabytes. Not bad for three devices being used.

While it may seem, just from reading the above, that we did not enjoy our vacation.  Yes, there were issues-as there will be for pretty much every vacation for everyone, do not go perfect all of the time-but we had a blast.  The resort was entertaining and we did not have to go far for anything. The family squabbles, short as they were, are just part of life and I would not trade them or this vacation for anything.